To tell Carmel’s history one must have recourse to mystery, myth, and mysticism, for the Carmelite Order begins something like the book of Genesis in the Bible: “In the beginning…” There is no precise date.
In the beginning… a group of anonymous hermits from Europe, either at the end of the 12th or the beginning of the 13th century, journeyed to Mount Carmel in the Holy Land to follow Christ by dwelling in solitary caves to live out the Gospel call to pray always. The mystery of how the Order started speaks of the humility and self-forgetfulness of its founders.
Mount Carmel linked them very specially to the contemplative prophet Elijah. Some Carmelites have even claimed that the Order’s origins could be traced in an unbroken line to the Old Testament prophet. “Although this is a myth, like all myths it points to a certain truth. Carmelites look to Elijah to help express the core of who they are.” The hermits addressed Elijah as their “father”. They sought to imitate him in the way he lived his prophetic vocation. In this spiritual and mythical sense, Elijah is called the “founder” of the Carmelite Order. Imitating his prophetic vocation means, primarily, living in the presence of God and bearing witness to God. The words of Elijah: “The Lord God lives, before whose face I stand” and “with zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of Hosts” express the spirit of Carmelite contemplation and apostolic zeal.
Moved by intense devotion to Christ, the hermits of Mount Carmel looked to the Virgin Mary as the model who lived out this devotion to the fullest. They placed themselves under her protection and built a chapel in her honor. Soon they became known as the “hermits of St. Mary of Mount Carmel”. Later, they petitioned St. Albert, Patriarch of Jerusalem, to formulate into a rule the way of life that they were already living. Around 1209, they received a short and very biblical rule that continues to inspire all Carmelites today to be faithful to their mystical tradition of prayer in the Church.
Later, persecution against Christians in the Holy Land forced the Order to Europe. The hermits who migrated to Europe established communities that were modeled after the one on Mount Carmel. However, problems arose in this new environment that necessitated the introduction of some of the cenobitic (communal) form into the hermits’ lifestyle.